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Essay

Of Gods and Men

By July 16, 2012 3 Comments
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Today, a movie recommendation.

Of Gods and Men.” It is hauntingly beautiful.  
Here’s the trailer:



Based on true events, the film depicts a small group of French Trappist monks in Algeria, who in 1996 grapple with how to respond to the increasing military and guerrilla violence that consumed the country and found its way to their quiet village and monastery. The government tries to force them to accept military protection, and later urges them to leave for safety elsewhere. The guerrillas, in turn, show up and threaten them along with the rest of the civilians. The monks confront their very real fears and doubts about what to do, but ultimately refuse to let their own sense of danger or safety drive their actions. Rather than fear or security, the ethic that drives them is their commitment to God and to their neighbors–in their case, their Muslim neighbors. Their commitment to stay is fraught with conflict at first, and the film honestly portrays the group’s internal struggles, as some members doubt the wisdom of staying and so brazenly risking their lives. In one scene, the monk who has struggled most with the group’s decision to stay asks Christian, the prior:

“Dying here…here and now…does it serve a purpose? I don’t know. I feel like I’m going mad.”

Christian says, “It’s true that staying here…is as mad as becoming a monk.” Facing him, he continues: “Remember…you’ve already given your life. You gave it by following Christ. When you decided to leave everything….”

The brother replies, “I don’t get it. Why be martyrs? For God? To be heroes? To prove we’re the best?”

Christian shakes his head and responds, “No no, no. We’re martyrs out of love, out of fidelity. If death overtakes us, it will be despite ourselves, because up to the end, we’ll try to avoid it. Our mission here is to be brothers to all. Remember that love is eternal hope. Love endures everything.”

I can’t find words that do justice (but of course not, it’s a film!) to the beauty–aesthetic, relational, theological–conveyed by this story. In a similar manner as “Romero,” or perhaps “A Man for all Seasons,” it narrates the clash between power and love, between the fever of violence and the self-sacrificing insistence on peace. It’s by no means a trite or simplistic portrayal of faith; instead, it explores the nuances of what it means to be a faithful follower of the Prince of Peace even when doing so seems only to provoke more terror. The group’s actions, led in large part by the deeply wise prior Christian de Cherge, bear witness to the ultimate price of nonviolence.

One of several lasting impressions I had was the connection between contemplation and action. The monks immersed themselves in their daily spiritual practices of prayer, singing, fellowship, and meals, and continued to do so even as society succumbed to mayhem around them. But it was their deeply formed habits of faith that empowered them to rise to the occasion–above the occasion, even–when faced with crisis. There’s a scene in which the brothers continue to worship and sing even as their voices are nearly drowned out by a helicopter overhead. At first glance, their behavior seems like a denial of the reality unfolding around them. Stupid, almost, to be singing “at a time like this.” But their habits strengthen them precisely “for such a time as this.” Far from mundane ritual, the monks’ practiced devotion allows them to withstand the temptation to panic under pressure, and frees them to respond with a Christ-like love that really does cast out fear.

Reflecting on their first face to face, life-or-death encounter with the guerrillas, which had occurred on Christmas Eve, Christian later shares with the brothers:

“Once [the terrorists] were gone, all we had left to do was live.
And the first thing we did was two hours later.
We celebrated the Christmas vigil and mass.
It’s what we had to do. It’s what we did…
We welcomed that child who was born for us, absolutely helpless and already so threatened. Afterwards, we found salvation in undertaking our daily tasks.
The kitchen, the garden, the prayers, the bells.
Day after day, we had to resist the violence.
And day after day, I think each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us.
It’s…to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another.
And from birth to birth, we’ll each end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are.
The incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity.
The mystery of the incarnation remains…that which we are going to live. In this way, what we’ve already lived here takes root, as well as what we’re going to live in the future. “

I commend the film to you and hope that you’ll also be encouraged and inspired by it! Let me know what you thought of it. And share any recommendations of your own while you’re at it!

 

3 Comments

  • andrew says:

    sarah coakley used a clip from this film in her stimulating 2012 gifford lectures at university of aberdeen (which have been posted on youtube).

  • Jessica Bratt says:

    thanks Andrew, I will check out the lecture clips…

  • SSB says:

    Thank you for your lovely review. I'm actually using this film in my sermon on the lectionary Epistle (Ephesians 2:11-22). It's a powerful testimony of the hard work of bearing God's peace into this violent and divided world.

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